Scientists have for the first time found microplastics — tiny particles that can be ingested — in freshly fallen Antarctic snow.
The discovery, from researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, joins a small collection of recent research on this type of plastic, which can be so small it’s invisible to the naked eye and is derived both from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces or is produced this small intentionally, to create grit in toothpaste and sunscreens, for instance.
The implications of the discovery span health issues to additional climate change stress already felt in the poles.
The Canterbury group collected samples from 19 sites in Antarctica, including along the Ross Ice Shelf — the largest ice shelf in Antarctica — and found microplastics in every single sample taken. The researchers found an average of 29 particles per liter of melted snow.
The group identified 13 different types of plastics and the most common was polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic used in making drink bottles, food packaging and fabrics. PET was found in 79% of the samples.
Alex Aves, who recently graduated with a Master of Antarctic Studies degree with distinction, says she was shocked by her findings.
“It’s incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world,” she said.
“Looking back now, I’m not at all surprised,” team member and associate professor Laura Revell said of their initial belief that the pole was too remote to contain plastic. “From the studies published in the last few years we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them.”
Meanwhile, research earlier this year found evidence of plastic in the bloodstream of humans for the first time. But how it might regularly get there and what long-lasting impacts can be expected, including if it can clear the blood-brain barrier, are open to further discovery.
Much of the world isn’t likely to wean itself from the hygienic and convenient features of plastic without a dramatic rethink of consumption. Plastic production, which has played a role in everything from administering medical care to keeping food fresh longer, is slated to quadruple by 2050.
Still, it was an eye-opening revelation considering that microplastics are known to be inhaled from the air or digested when eating fish, for instance, and other food. Humans eat or breathe in about 2,000 tiny plastic particles each week, the World Wildlife Federation found in a 2019 study. Many are ingested from bottled and tap water.
Microplastics may also be increasing the impact of global warming, studies show.
Snowfields, ice caps and glaciers around the world are already melting fast, and scientists say dark-colored microplastics deposited here can make things worse by absorbing sunlight and enhancing local heating.
Clean snowpacks, icefields and glaciers can reflect much of the sunlight, but other polluting particles such as black carbon have also been found on icefields and glaciers of the Himalayas — and scientists say they accelerate the melting there.